Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Learning Power


Are we teaching the creativity right out of our students? A Bristol University research project shows that their creativity, and effectiveness as lifelong learners, actually reduces as they go through school. Ruth Deakin Crick is director of the project, which measures this thing called 'learning power'.

Learning to learn is the educational paradigm for the 21st century. What matters today is how to process and manipulate knowledge, rather than absorbing and memorising facts from within a narrow specialism.

We know that a job for life is a thing of the past. Facts learned at school become irrelevant to most of life's challenges since the internet makes knowledge universal and immediately accessible. It's not whether you have the answers, it's how well you ask the questions that counts.

Creativity, rather than simply following procedures, is essential for learning, work, active citizenship and enterprise.

But how do schools do this? We have reached a plateau in our drive to raise attainment - the question is no longer simply how to increase knowledge and skills, but how to help students want to keep learning throughout their lives.

Learning power dimensions

The ELLI Project (Effective Lifelong Learning Inventory) set out to identify the characteristics of 'learning power', in other words students' self-awareness and their motivation to learn. It represents the attitudes, values, dispositions and beliefs we all bring to our learning.

If there are two aims in our education system - to give students knowledge and skills and to support their personal development - learning power is the cement that holds them together.

It runs parallel to the curriculum, rather like a mirror, and works across subjects.

Early research helped us identify seven dimensions of learning power:

  • changing and learning: being aware of our own development

  • meaning making: finding connections

  • critical curiosity: wanting to get beneath the surface

  • creativity: risk-taking, lateral thinking and intuition

  • learning relationships: working both independently and collaboratively

  • strategic awareness: managing feelings and processes

  • resilience: determination and self-reliance

Once we know what we are looking for, we can find a means to assess it. Our early research led to ELLI, a self-report questionnaire that provides learners and their teachers with a profile of how they are doing on the seven dimensions.

Teaching strategies

As we worked with teachers and students, we investigated which environments and teaching strategies are most helpful to learning power.

For instance, by not being given 'set pieces' of knowledge, students learn that listening to others matters, that truth is not necessarily straightforward, that making mistakes is simply a part of learning and that everyone has something to offer.

The research found that new vocabulary was an important factor. By focusing on the dimensions of learning power within themselves and the process of learning itself, students discovered that it is possible to learn how to learn.

In practice, individual student assessments are generated by an online questionnaire and are produced in the form of a spider diagram - without numbers. This is to avoid naming and labelling and help understand the learner as a whole person, with different strengths and limitations in different contexts.

The power of the assessment strategy is not in the actual data produced, but in the response to the data by learners and their teachers over time. Hence dynamic assessment.

The data collected so far on over 6,000 learners give us some interesting insights into the state of learning power in schools.

In the most recent study we explored the relationships between learning power, attainment, emotional literacy and teachers' learner-centred practices.

Where learning power scores are higher, there is likely also to be higher attainment by national curriculum assessments. However, ironically, high creativity predicts lower attainment by national curriculum measures.

Creativity suffers

Disturbingly, the average score on each learning dimension actually gets significantly lower as students progress through the key stages. Creativity is the worst casualty and indications are that this continues to decline in the post-16 cohort.

We know that girls tend to have different learning power profiles from boys, and that schools and classrooms vary considerably in the amount of learning power their students report.

We know that students who have a higher sense of the school as an emotionally literate place are likely to have greater learning power.

This is also true of those who have a higher perception of their teachers' ability to create positive interpersonal relationships, to honour student voice, to stimulate higher thinking and to cater for individual differences.

In short, the more learner-centred - rather than child-centred or knowledge-centred - the school, the more likely the students will report themselves to have lots of learning power.

Finally, the biggest predictor of low levels of learning power and attainment are teachers whose style is seen by their students to be highly controlling and who have negative beliefs about students and their ability to learn.

The strongest message from the findings of the ELLI Research Programme so far concerns the inter-connection and interaction of all these variables.

The intrapersonal elements - including a learner's understanding and ownership of the values, attitudes and dispositions that affect learning power - have the most direct impact on motivation and self-improvement.

However, there are also the learner's perceptions of interpersonal factors, including the quality of relationships and the extent to which his or her individual learning needs are met.

Whether adults meet this challenge depends in turn on the organisational climate, which is itself affected by the manner in which these interconnected factors are acknowledged and expressed.

Distilled down to its simplest form, learners learn best in a learning community. It's as straightforward and as complicated as that.


Implementing ELLI

The ELLI self-report questionnaire provides learners and their teachers with a profile of how they are doing on the seven areas of learning power, such as lateral thinking and engaging with information. Schools have been using it in a variety of ways.

Evaluation of 14-16 curriculum

Some schools have used ELLI questionnaires to assess the underlying skills that carry across educational contexts - for instance those that apply equally in a work placement and English classroom.

Educational business partnership

There are clear parallels between the dimensions of learning and key themes of enterprise. ELLI online has been used to give useful feedback to students about their learning in relation to enterprise skills. The learning dimensions provide the bridge between the enterprise experiences and the more formal curriculum of school.


Some schools have made citizenship part of the whole ethos of the school, rather than being simply a subject on the timetable. These schools are using ELLI as a strategy for stimulating citizenship conversations and learning across the curriculum.

Integrating pastoral and academic

Some secondary schools are using ELLI assessment as part of their tutor time, structuring learning and personal development conversations between students and their tutors, rather than within one particular subject.

More information

For details on the Bristol ELLI Project visit www.bristol.ac.uk/education/enterprise/elli and www.ellionline.co.uk

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